For as far back as Dr. Ndola Prata can remember, she wanted to improve women’s health.
“My particular interest started when I was very young, basically by being around a lot of suffering of women, and learning about their reproductive needs that were not being met,” she said. At that time, Prata was growing up in Angola, a country struggling through nearly 30 years of civil war.
Prata earned her medical degree in Angola and practiced there as a physician for 10 years before coming to the United States. She also earned a master’s degree in medical demography from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1998 she joined the UC Berkeley School of Public Health as a researcher and lecturer, simultaneously working as a medical demographer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for six years. She is currently an associate professor in residence of maternal and child health.
A new role at the School and the Bixby Center
This past July, Prata stepped into two prominent new roles at the School. She was appointed to the Fred H. Bixby Chair in Population and Family Planning and became director of the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability. The center works to improve family planning, maternal and reproductive health and address the impact of rapid population growth on global public health and the environment, seeking to improve health outcomes of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women and their families.
Prata assumed the Bixby Center directorship after serving as the center’s scientific director for seven years. A powerful voice in reproductive health, she has been described as “pushing up against conventional thinking” in the field of public health.
A shared belief in social justice and women’s rights
“Professor Prata and I have the same commitment and passion for women’s reproductive health and the same perspective on the need to slow rapid population growth in a human rights framework,” said Dr. Malcolm Potts, former chair of the Bixby Center. Potts appointed Prata to take his place when he stepped down from the position.
Potts himself is leading a new initiative in the Sahel region of Africa, an area with one of the fastest growing population rates in the world, where investments in reproductive health are particularly lacking. Prata described him as “basically waking the world up about what’s going on in that area.”
To Potts, Prata’s appointment at Bixby is about more than just shifting titles from one researcher to another. It’s about social justice. He says that after working in reproductive health in Africa for decades, the most satisfying thing for him is to have the opportunity to pass leadership on to a physician and a research scientist from Africa itself.
Prata’s teaching and research at Berkeley are focused on increasing access to family planning, contraceptives, safe abortion, and basic health services to prevent maternal mortality. Much of this work is concentrated in Africa. Her experience of growing up in Angola continues to be one of her greatest influences when it comes to maximizing resources in order to accomplish public health goals.
Prata is often described as having a kind of passionate pragmatism—trying to get treatment regimens to the most people possible, even if those treatments don’t initially reach a “gold standard” of perfection.
“I think she is simply the most talented person on this planet for doing high quality research in low resource settings,” said Potts.
Improving strategies to set and achieve health goals
Probably the most significant thing Prata brings to her new role is a critical eye to the strategies and programs in public health, she says. She continues to teach, conduct research, and work with policy makers to put that research into practice. She hopes to increase collaboration with other schools in the UC system and sees the university setting as a place to design strategies for health that can be scaled up in the private sector.
According to Prata, “My thinking as a public health professional is to look back at what we’ve already done and ask, ‘Were the strategies implemented working?’”
In her view, that’s the best way to have big goals and achieve them too.